Friday, October 28, 2005


We are drawing near to the beginning of the American holiday season which seems to extend backwards into fall ever further as each year passes. The end result of this is that we begin to get the holiday season movies even at the end of October, all in the spirit of "only X more shopping days until Christmas". Two of the recently released movies "The Legend of Zorro" and "The Gospel" range from fluff to the right stuff, though both are interesting for different reasons.

"The Legend of Zorro" finds Antonio Banderas and Katherine Zeta-Jones reprising their roles as the dueling De la Vegas hiding the secret that Don Alejandro has all along been Zorro who is the vox populi not to mention the people's champ. The pleasant fiction this time around is that California is about to become a State (around 1851) but there are those who in fact don't want this to happen, indeed they don't want America to be United. Who are 'they'? I'm glad you asked, "they" are the Knights of Arragon (not to be confused with the Knights of Columbus), a secret society that have as their motto "Orbis Unum"--- one world (domination) as opposed to E Pluribus Unum.

Of course credulity is stretched to the breaking point when we finds this secret society from Europe safely enscounced California in its goldrush hey day, but then also we are led to believe that already in 1850 or so General Beauregard later of Confederate Army fame was already cutting deals with this gnarly secret society to buy the ultimate weapon (nitro-gylcerine made out of--- wait for it, melted down bars of glycerine soap!!!). If that were not enough the Spaniard cum Mexican Zorro becomes the rescuer of freedom, democracy and the U.S. union! What would Catherine of Arragon say!

Never mind that Catherine, we have another one to deal with, namely Zeta-Jones and she, like this movie in general is visually quite appealing. Unfortunately her attempt at an Hispanic accent leaves much to be desired, and she is seldom given lines that she can make much of--only occasionally the verbal sparring with Zorro becomes engaging. In fact it is the Padre who has the only good line of the movie when he confides to Banderas that he indulges in wine as his only vice so he can relate better with his parishoners---- yikes!!! "Forgive me Father for you are drunk."

But this is hardly all. We have the horse of Zorro smoking and drinking, the son of Zorro playing a part straight out of the Bad News Bears, and of course when the plot gets ever so thin we rev up the chase scene or the fighting to new decibel levels. It is amazing how many death blows both the good and bad guys can take before they breath their last. Never mind, Zorro has his one last day in the sun, is reconciled and remarried to his wife, and the world is safe for American democracy. Did I mention that the worst bad guy is a fundamentalist who thinks he is God's angel of death? On the stretching credulity meter this one stretches from here to eternity. It is hardly the stuff of legends.

Very different, though not Oscar caliber material either is 'The Gospel" the story of the prodigal son of an African American minister from Atlanta. It does not rely on action or on star power, but rather on story, and is all the better for it. Bishop Taylor is dying, and his son, the R+B star David Taylor is just about to become the new breakthrough star on the sleaze and tease R+B scene when he comes home to be reconciled with his father before he passes. The real star of this movie is the Gospel praise songs, sung with exuberance by a choir which apparently Kirk Franklin got together. What is interesting is that there is as much action in this movie as in the Zorro movie, only its people praising and dancing before the Lord in church that is electric, whereas Zorro ranges from predictable violence to equally predicable chase scenes. Two very different forms of action--- and the less harmful kind is actually far more engaging and moving, sometimes even reaching for real pathos when you listen to the words of "He is God" or "Our God is an Awesome God" sung by a juiced up choir. The preaching, alas, never reaches such heights. What is interesting about this movie is that it does not pander, and its final altar call scene is just fine.

These two movies present us with clergy of very different sorts. The padre who is the people's and Zorro's friend, but also a lush, and the bishop who neglects his son, while serving his flock, but is reconciled with the son in the end. These are flawed ministers, but only the ones in the second movie seem real. Kudos to Hollywood for being willing to tackle a movie about the African American Protestant church, and its having to compete with modern secular music ranging from jazz to hip hop to rap to R+B. It is a timely theme. Unfortunately Americans are more likely to go see the eye-candy movie, rather than the soul stirring one. What does that tell us about our culture?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Agrapha--- by Maria Mayo Robbins

I am very pleased to offer you a poem written by a doctoral student at Vanderbilt Divinity School whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know while teaching there from time to time.



Peel back the layers of me,
I am stratified.
I am Mark, I am Special M, Special L.
I am Q.
I am red and black beads,
I am hazy grey and pink.
Touch me, I am words on a page.
I am redactions. I am parts.
I am the idea of a man.

I am waiting for the end of the world.
I am creating a new social order.
I am marginalized. I am privileged.
I am radical egalitarianism.
I am patriarchy.
I am academic words and original-language texts,
Aramaicisms and multiple attestations.
Why is the truth of me so heavy?
I am a tortured body, naked, hanging there.
What is heavy is my staggered breath,
the weight of my own body suffocating me,
the stares of those who watch me suffer and die.
I am the reports of the eyes that see me.
I breathe one last breath and then
I become a story.
I am dead already, but you ravage me.
Your scholarly sentences pierce my skin,
a grammar of spears.
My god, my god.

Peel back the layers of me, I am a fruit
you will never core.
I am scrolls, codices, best-sellers.
I am your prophet and your seer.
I am your profit and your livelihood.
I give your life meaning, yes, even you.
Artists cover my waist with
your strips of imagined cloth,
but you strip me,
reconstruct me,
excavate me.
I am two-thousand years exhumed,
and when will you let me decompose?
My god, my god.

Peel back the layers of me, I am gospel, story, narrative.
I am criteria of authenticity. I am social context.
I am the mysterious agendas of implied authors,
the attentive ears of implied audiences.
I am oral tradition.
I hang lifeless on a cross.
You pierce me, and black beads spill out.
With my last breath, I become nothing but
black beads, black beads.
My god, my god.

I am your tower of Babel, the confusion
of your paragraphs and theses and tomes.
I tear up your academic temple,
overthrow your tables.
I am logos and logia.
I am the word become flesh, and the work
of your hands turns me back into words.
The church releases me like a dove,
and I soar. You catch me with strings of phrases,
and I drift slowly down, a spirit body, ethereal.
I am a wisp of smoke in your windless sky.
I am nothing but ideas and air.
You breathe me in, and somehow I sustain you.
My god, my god.


But look, I am you, and I am unashamed.
I walked, I walked, and everywhere I went,
I tried to peel back layers.
I died, and I became the story of God.
Now you are the stewards of my details,
preservers of my name.
Peel back the layers of me, tell me who I am,
because I never knew.
I listen, I watch.
Into your hands, I commend my story.
I hope you unravel me, because my life
and my death are tangled and gnarled.
If I could, I too would peel back layers,
cut my own skin like a fisherman, and out would spill
the special letters of the alphabet that spell me
and spell you still.

Translate me out of this language I don’t
understand, tell me about my native tongue.
Could I read and write?
Tell me who they say I am.
Reveal me, scholars, teachers –
you shower me with divinity
with every book you bind.

Peel back the layers of me, I am waiting.
The parousia happens daily.
I come and come again with every class
you teach, every argument you construct,
every phrase you coin. You keep me alive.
The resurrection is the Jesus Seminar,
the unintentional cathedral and its
circle of high priests,
controversies and decisions and
the constant invocation of my name.
If I didn’t mean something then,
I know I mean something now.
You, in your academic temples,
cut carefully with your pens,
your dexterous fingers peel gingerly back
the thin thin layers
and there will always be more layers.
Show me how alive I am.
Stratify me.
Reconstruct me.
I am yours.

Maria Mayo Robbins
December 11, 2002

Friday, October 14, 2005

Chrysostom, Mother Teresa, and George Herbert on Prayer

Certainly for me, one of the most enriching things I have done in recent years is read large quantities of the greatest of the exegetes among the Greek Fathers---- John Chrysostom. I awoke this morning to this reading, which I thought was certainly worth sharing.

"For the psalmist says,'When I remembered you upon my bed, I thought upon you in the morning dawn.' We ought then to have God always in remembrance but then especially when thought is undisturbed and when by means of that remembrance one is able to concern himself, when one can retain things in memory. For in the daytime, indeed if we do remember, other cares and troubles, entering in, drive the thought out again; but in the night it is possible to remember continually, when the soul is calm and at rest; when it is in the harbor and under a serene sky. ...For it were indeed right to retain this remembrance through the day also. But inasmuch as you are always full of cares and distracted amidst the things of this life, at least then remember God on your bed. At the morning dawn mediatate on God. If at the morning dawn we meditate on these things, we will go forth to our business with much security. If we have first made God propitious by prayer and supplication, going forth in this fashion we shall have no enemy. Or if you should, you will laugh him to scorn, having God propitious. There is war in the marketplace; the affairs of every day are a fight, they are a tempest and a storm. We therefore need arms, and prayer is a great weapon. We need favorable winds; we need to learn everything, so as to go through the length of the day without shipwrecks and without wounds. For every single day the rocks are many, and oftentimes the boat strikes rock and is sunk. Therefore, we have especial need of prayer early and by night." (Homily on Hebrews 14.9).

Mother Theresa in crossing the border into Israel on one occasion was stopped by the guards and asked "Have you any weapons?" The question seemed superfluous and even ridiculous when one looked at this diminutive nun in her habit. She replied defiantly looing the guard right in the eye: "Yes," she said, "I have my prayer books."


Prayer the Church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, the heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against the Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ's side-piercing spear,
The six-days' world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness and peace, and joy and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood
The land of spices; something understood."

George Herbert

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Thought for the Day--- A SAINT AIN'T

One theologian has wryly defined a saint as a religious figure from hoary antiquity whose life has been insufficiently researched! In short, a saint ain't.

"For we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God....."

Monday, October 10, 2005

Food for Thought

If we could shrink the earth's population to a village of precisely
100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same,
it would look something like the following:

6 people would possess 59% of the entire world's wealth and all 6
would be from the United States.

80 would live in substandard housing

50 would suffer from malnutrition

If you woke up this morning with more health than are
more blessed than the million who will not survive this week.

If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness
of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation,
you are ahead of 500 million people in the world.

If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof
overhead and a place to are richer than 70% of this

If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a
dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world's wealthy.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Finding good and wholesome family entertainment in this day and age is like searching for the holy grail sometimes. We keep hoping it is out there somewhere, but it is ever so hard to find. Two exceptions to this rule can be found in two movies recently released on DVD--- 'Because of Winn Dixie' and 'Robots', the former a child and her dog movie the latter an animated feature which derives its zing from the ultimate zing master---- Robin Williams. Rather than reviewing and ruining the plot for those who have not seen them, it will be best if I just talk about the elements that make these stories work. Suffice it to say that these movies are user friendly for Christians.

In the case of 'Because of Winn Dixie' the cute factor is prominent--- both the little girl and her dog are hard not to love. But the story actually has some poignancy because, amazingly enough, we have a positive portrayal of a minister struggling to be a good single parent, effectly portrayed by Jeff Daniels. It is a relief not to see a Protestant minister caricatured by Hollywood, and it is equally helpful that we see that this minister has weaknesses, that are not moral in nature (contrast 'the Apostle'). This movie not only shows the challenges of being a single parent, but also the particular challenges this presents for someone trying to start a fledgling church in a small community. Yet it is clear that the daughter is trying hard to win her father's affection, and her father needs to do a better job of paying attention. Especially poignant is the attempt to explain to the daughter why 'Mom' left them, and the minister's struggle with guilt, feeling responsible for this tragedy. It is a typical blue color tale of true grit against considerable odds and it raises the question---- could our church embrace and support a minister like this?

'Robots', is a different sort of family tale, and here as well the family is a blue color one. Here we have two parents, and the father is a dishwasher--- I mean this literally (dishes wash inside the father!). The son in the family is a dreamer or inventor (kind of like his dad), supported with a lot of love and encouragement by his parents, as he sets out to make his way in the world. There is an antithesis to this family in the family of 'Rachet'who though he has highjacked a major corporation and is running it, is dominated by an enormously overbearing mother (who has quite literally strung up her husband from the rafters). The good son is contrasted with the bad son, and the normal family is both exalted and presented in a positive light. All of this may be missed since of course this movie has the ultimate scene stealer in it--- a robot with the voice of Robin Williams, who is hysterical as usual.

If we ask what these movies may be teaching our children, and the parents who view these movies with them, it is that family is a good thing, that hard work is a good thing, and that good can indeed triumph over obstacles, perhaps even over evil. But there is another theme in 'Robots' worth pondering--- a sentimental one, namely that the new and improved may not be the true and worth having. 'Upgrades' are the wave of the future, replacing ordinary parts in this movie. But the hero with his ingenuity finds a way to make old parts continue to work. This is only appropriate since this movie, like 'Because of Winn Dixie' finds a way to make old family values work as well--- and for this ordinary Christian viewers can only say--- 'Thank goodness, what a refreshing change of pace'.

By far the best of the recent 'family' movies is Roman Polanski's production of Charles Dicken's 'Oliver Twist'. Christian viewers will know the work of Dickens perhaps through his Christmas story, with such memorable characters as Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, or perhaps through his own Victorian retelling of the life of Christ, but the Dicken's works which made the most impact in their own day were his novels, and one of the best of these is Oliver Twist. Like Rembrandt, Dickens loves to sharply contrast darkness and light, and this romantic tale is no different, where we have an orphan who escapes from a child's labor mill and walks to London to make a new life where, like the man in the Good Samaritan, "he falls among thieves", and is taught the trade of artful 'dodging' not to mention thievery. The movie does an excellent job of painting the grim side of lower class life in Victorian England, and the stark contrast between the rich and the poor. It also does an excellent job of skewering hypocritical so-calld Christians who sell children down the river to the labor mills.

There are Oscar worthy performances in this movie by both Ben Kingsley (amazing and unrecognizable as Fagin) and Edward Hardwicke (Watson in Sherlocke Holmes) as the gentleman who comes to Oliver Twist's rescue. But the central character is of course Oliver Twist himself, played by an unknown who is nothing short of briliant. Dickens, true to the romanticism of his day, paints children as basically innocent, but subject to influence, whether bad or good, and in fact there are some profound and deeply redeeming features in Oliver Twist as the scene of forgiveness at the end of the movie makes so very clear.

This is an excellent movie to view with school age children if you want to have conversations with them about wealth and poverty and the Christian responsibility towards those less fortunate. It also shows so very clearly the fallenness of humankind, and man's inhumanity to his or her fellow human beings.

But even at the heart of darkness there are moments of grace and persons of goodwill, and this movie portrays these facts admirably. In my book this may be the movie of the year it is so compellingly filmed and acted, though unfortunately one has a Dickens of a time finding it, since it is in limited release. This is a movie worth seeing and savoring, and buying and watching again and again, not because it makes you feel good, but because it makes you wrestle with the call of Jesus when he said "imasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me...." The gist of the tale is the Twist in the tale, and he bears close watching indeed.

I was in the theater and the kids were everywhere. It is an unusual day when parents take their small children to see a movie about golf, but such is the case with the much praised "The Greatest Game Ever Played". The story is the improbable one of a very young American amateur Francis Ouimet who just happens to caddy on the course in Massachusetts where the 1913 U.S. Open is held. Even more improbably, he is asked by the club to play in the Open (that's why they call it an open, even amateurs, even rank amateurs can play--- as long as their play isn't rank). Still more improbably he finds himself in a fight to the finish to win the open against the greatest golfer of the age Harry Vardon. But however improbable this story may sound to you, and whatever your suspicions about Walt Disney, this actually is a true and amazing story, and it is well told and beautifully filmed.

The actors, though largely unknown, do a splendid job, the recreation of the period is excellent, right down to the whole British and American upper class prejudice issue, and there is plenty of comic relief from Eddie the diminutive caddy of Francis Ouimet. The story raises some interesting issues about the keeping of promises to one's parents (Ouimet played in the tourney though he had earlier promised his father to give up golf and get a real job that paid), and it also plows the well worn furrow of the parent child relationship and whether parents should always support their children's dreams, however unrealistic or apparently unrealizable. The message seems to be--- "don't let the world or your parents force you to give up your dreams". There is some poignancy in the story telling in regard to this theme. In a sense this movie raises the same kind of questions about dreams that the famous play by L. Hansberry "A Raisin in the Sun" raised. Is it really true that growing up or becoming mature= giving up one's childhood dreams? Is it true all of the time, or only some of time? This movie is so very different from those about driven parents who try to reach their own goals in life by pushing their children in various directions. Here Francis is the one with the passion for the game, and his father seems all too ready to dash his dreams and hopes, having himself been forced into the world's mold. As Christian persons and parents perhaps it will be well to remember the Biblical stories about dreamers who made good--- ranging from a Joseph to a Daniel to a Peter or a Paul. Perhaps dreams are the stuff of which real meaningful life can be made and molded, for as Acts 2 says the age of Pentecost is the age when young and old will dream dreams, inspired by God.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Opus Magnum

Weary, worn, welts on hand
Work has whittled down the man
To the bare necessities
Of what he is, and what he’ll be
Was this then his destiny?

Defined, refined by what we do,
The toilsome tasks are never through
Thorn and thistle, dirt and dust
Sweeping clean, removing rust
All to earn his upper crust?

Sweat of brow, and carried weight
Rose too early, slept too late
Slaving, striving dawn to dusk
Til the shell is barely husk
Staunch the stench with smell of musk?

But work is not the curse or cure
By which we’re healed, or will endure
It will not save us in the end,
It is no foe, but rather friend
But while it molds us will we mend?

Task Master making all things new
Who makes the most of what we do,
Let our work an offering be
A timely gift from those set free
From earning our eternity.

When work is mission on the move
By those whose efforts serve to prove
That nothing’s wasted in God’s hands
When we respond to his commands
Then we shall hear him say “well done”
To those who worked under the Son.

Oct. 4, 2005


Sunday, October 02, 2005

Tis a Gift to be Simple-- the story of Kevin

A friend of 30 plus years sent this to me. I thought you would want to see it. It raises the question--- what is normal in God's eyes, and what is a handicap in God's eyes?


Don't start reading this one until you've got more than 3 or
4 minutes to just "scan" over it. It deserves some time for

I envy Kevin. My brother Kevin thinks God lives under his
bed. At least that's what I heard him say one night.

He was praying out loud in his dark bedroom, and I stopped
to listen,

"Are you there, God?" he said. "Where are you? Oh, I see.
Under the bed..."

I giggled softly and tiptoed off to my own room. Kevin's
unique perspectives are often a source of amusement. But
that night something else lingered long after the humor. I
realized for the first time the very different world Kevin
lives in.

He was born 30 years ago, mentally disabled as a result of
difficulties during labor. Apart from his size (he's
6-foot-2), there are few ways in which he is an adult.

He reasons and communicates with the capabilities of a
7-year-old, and he always will.
He will probably always believe that God lives under his bed,
that Santa Claus is the one who fills the space under our
tree every Christmas and that airplanes stay up in the sky
because angels carry them.

I remember wondering if Kevin realizes he is different.

Is he ever dissatisfied with his monotonous life?

Up before dawn each day, off to work at a workshop for the
disabled, home to walk our cocker spaniel, return to eat his
favorite macaroni-and-cheese for dinner, and later to bed.

The only variation in the entire scheme is laundry, when he
hovers excitedly over the washing machine like a mother with
her newborn child.

He does not seem dissatisfied.

He lopes out to the bus every morning at 7:05, eager for a
day of simple work.

He wrings his hands excitedly while the water boils on the
stove before dinner, and he stays up late twice a week to
gather our dirty laundry for his next day's laundry chores.

And Saturdays-oh, the bliss of Saturdays!
That's the day my Dad takes Kevin to the airport to have a
soft drink, watch the planes land, and speculate loudly on
the destination of each passenger inside.

"That one's goin' to Chi-car-go!" Kevin shouts as he claps
his hands.

His anticipation is so great he can hardly sleep on Friday

And so goes his world of daily rituals and weekend field

He doesn't know what it means to be discontent.

His life is simple.

He will never know the entanglements of wealth of power, and
he does not care what brand of clothing he wears or what kind of food he eats.
His needs have always been met, and he never worries that
one day they may not be.

His hands are diligent. Kevin is never so happy as when he
is working. When he unloads the dishwasher or vacuums the
carpet, his heart is completely in it.

He does not shrink from a job when it is begun, and he does
not leave a job until it is finished.
But when his tasks are done, Kevin knows how to relax.

He is not obsessed with his work or the work of others. His
heart is pure.

He still believes everyone tells the truth, promises must be
kept, and when you are wrong, you apologize instead of

Free from pride and unconcerned with appearances, Kevin is
not afraid to cry when he is hurt, angry or sorry.
He is always transparent, always sincere. And he trusts

Not confined by intellectual reasoning, when he comes to
Christ, he comes as a child. Kevin seems to know God - to
really be friends with Him in a way that is difficult for an
"educated" person to grasp. God seems like his closest

In my moments of doubt and frustrations with my Christianity
I envy the security Kevin has in his simple faith.

It is then that I am most willing to admit that he has some
divine knowledge that rises above my mortal questions.

It is then I realize that perhaps he is not the one with the
handicap . . I am.
My obligations, my fear, my pride, my circumstances - they
all become disabilities when I do not trust them to God's

Who knows if Kevin comprehends things I can never learn?
After all, he has spent his whole life in that kind of
innocence, praying after dark and soaking up the goodness
and love of God.
And one day, when the mysteries of heaven are opened, and we
are all amazed at how close God really is to our hearts,
I'll realize that God heard the simple prayers of a boy who
believed that God lived under his bed.

Kevin won't be surprised at all!
When you receive this, say a prayer. That's all you have to
do. There is nothing attached. This is powerful.